What happens when the boys in blue get too close to their keyboards.
"I crushed a dude's eye socket from repeatedly punching him in it and then I charged him with menacing and harassment (of me)."
"Seeing someone get Tasered is second only to pulling the trigger. That is money-puts a smile on your face."
Those are two of the statements posted by corrections deputy David B. Thompson of Multnomah County, Oregon to an Internet chat room. The inflammatory rhetoric sparked an ongoing investigation by the county sheriff's office, as well as reporting by the Portland Tribune and other local news outlets.
Thompson may also have filed a false police report to hide the eye-socket incident he brags about in his post. Although the sheriff's department can't comment on the investigation while it's still underway, he could be fired and prosecuted if he's found guilty.
Many police departments across the country have experienced similar bulletin board crises over the last few years, putting police officers' freedom of speech in conflict with the public's need to be protected from, well, cops who get off on using Tasers.
This March, the New York Observer reported that commenters on the "NYPD Rant" site were posting pictures of local bicycle activists from the group Transportation Alternatives with comments like, "These lawbreaking cycle pirates must be stopped!!" and "Someone please hammer these 2 turds this weekend" (at a Critical Mass event).
In June, St. George, MO resident Brett Darrow incurred online cop hostility when he posted a video of a disputed traffic stop. According to TheNewspaper.com, one poster at St. Louis CopTalk wrote, "I'm going to his house to check for parking violations." Another, using the pseudonym "STL_finest," went further: "I hope this little POS punk bastard tries his little video stunt with me when I pull him over alone-and I WILL pull him over-because I will see 'his gun' and place a hunk of hot lead right where it belongs."
Those posts were deleted, and discussion of Darrow has been banned from the boards. But these online threats have been accompanied by face-to-face death and arrest threats made at Darrow, including a second videotaped encounter with an officer who screamed at Darrow in a parking lot.
In September, a Columbus, OH officer resigned after the Columbus Dispatch revealed that she
and her sister had posted videos on YouTube blaming Jews, blacks, and immigrants for the country's
problems. Susan L. Purtee was neither on duty nor in uniform when she said Jews "started to tell us—the gentiles—how to live, because if we did, they'd make a lot of money" and black people use "mangled English, dirty and filthy"; but neither was she entirely anonymous, since the sisters' website
revealed that she was a law-enforcement officer. Purtee was reassigned to a desk job, and then
Unsurprisingly, many of these conflicts have a racial component. In 2006, the Montgomery County, MD police chief got into a highly-publicized battle with the county's branch of the Fraternal Order of Police over postings on the police union's online forums. Some pseudonymous postings referred to Hispanic immigrants as "beaners," insulted another officer and threatened her husband—posting the officer's name, badge number, and station, and, in one case, threatening to attack her husband if he "scream[ed] profiling" after a traffic stop. The county responded by blocking access to the forums from county-owned computers.
"It was basically perceived as an attack from outside," says Walte Bader, who was the Montgomery County FOP president during the controversy. Bader adds that the union was working on civility rules
for the forum when the controversy went public, but "when the government, the police department, tried to interfere we saw that as a totally different matter of government interference with First Amendment rights. We would not shut that website down on the basis of [the government] calling for it or the Washington Post calling for it."
Bader has a point. "Courts have said that there are limits on what public employees can say because of the nature of their responsibilities. You could say that the government has more leeway to clamp down on the speech of employees to the extent that it's inconsistent with their duties," explains Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with the Public Citizen Litigation Group and a specialist on Internet speech and anonymity. But Levy notes that the Internet offers ways to "separate the position from the identity of the person" in a way that may allow government employees more room to rant.
Levy suggests that the Internet, with its possibilities of total anonymity, is an especially valuable free-speech forum: "People ought to be able to blow off steam. It's the marketplace of ideas—people ought to get it out there."
John Gilmore's classic line about the Internet is that it "interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it." The Montgomery County FOP boards, for example, were shut down during the comments controversy, but a number of other boards maintained by individual cops sprung up to take their place.
Levy adds that the specifics of each case matter a lot: Personal threats can be treated differently from more general ugly comments. "Is it a true threat?" he asks. "The courts distinguish between vague 'this is outrageous, people ought to be up in arms' and 'watch out, I know where you live, this is your address, I'm coming to get you.' There's a continuum."
Levy argues, "If police officers are having these awful thoughts, it's nice to know about it so we can do something about it administratively." He has a list of questions to ask about incidents like these: "Are there morale problems here that need to be addressed? Are there community problems that need to be addressed? Simply by their intemperate speech, they reveal the existence of a problem."
Mary Shelton, the Californian proprietor of the weblog "Five Before Midnight", took a different view after she found herself targeted. In 2005 and 2006, the local activist (she started her blog to monitor how the police department would respond to the end of a court-ordered reform plan) got a spate of threatening and racist blog comments from people claiming to be police officers. "I felt really intimidated," Shelton says. "It makes you look at them differently—is it this police officer, that police officer? …I think that's one of the most difficult things of all, that you can't put a face on it."
The threats escalated: Shelton recalls that one poster gave details of what she was wearing and what she was doing during the day. Finally, a comment—"The reason [cops] beat up the Mexicans is because it's a fiesta, you beat them and candy comes out"—led her to close comments.
Shelton doesn't know exactly what happened after the department investigated the threats. "The official word was discipline was given out," she says, but California confidentiality laws prevented her from learning more.
She acknowledges that the department's investigation raises free speech concerns: "That's a hard one for me, too." But she argues, "They have to operate under the understanding that they have rules to follow. They're police officers. They have a lot of authority. They have arresting power. They have this expectation that when they speak they will be truthful, because they have to testify in court. And they have to deal with different parts of the community."
Shelton is left wondering. "If they're going around saying these statements anywhere, how do you know that's where it's being left, and it's not impacting their job performance? They have a lot of privileges and rights that come with their position, and there are responsibilities that come with that as well."
Eve Tushnet is a freelance writer in Washington, DC. She blogs at http://eve-tushnet.blogspot.com.